By Jana LaBrasca, 15, Hamilton HS
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Jana goes up against Dan Kalbfliesch, a local amateur sumo wrestler, during her first sumo class.
Photo by Jennifer Golum, 15, Notre Dame HS

It was hot in class last spring, and my mind was wandering. My eyes drifted, and I noticed a small red poster that had a photograph of two scantily clad men of substantial girth, immense physical strength and gazes filled with noble determination. Sumo wrestlers in action. Fascinated, I continued to wonder about the poster until I noticed it said that the U.S. Sumo Open would be taking place at 12:30 p.m. in two days at the Convention Center.

Sumo, though seemingly simple—just two guys in a small ring—looked so much more interesting than American sports. Football is too complicated. Basketball makes me feel like my eyes share the fate of the bouncing ball in a sing-along. And baseball? Bo-ring. It struck me how there was nothing between these athletes and their sport, nothing—no pads, no helmets, no uniforms with logos. Without these things there’s a more powerful physical connection between the opponents.

The next day, a friend and I finagled—through a little deception and a lot of girlish charm—our way into a sumo demonstration that I found out was taking place at school. Filing into the gym, I was speechless, but even in my excitement, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disgust toward my fellow students. They were rowdy and obnoxious and making lame jokes about fat men in thongs.

The assembly began with the referee telling us through an interpreter how sumo wrestling was originally a practice of Shintoism (an ancient religion in Japan) and how the sport evolved over the centuries. He explained some common moves, like the yorikiri (force out), uwatenage (overarm throw) or the tsuridashi (carry out), demonstrated by two professional wrestlers.

The techniques of sumo fascinated me

The wrestlers circled each other, sometimes slapping their thighs with a sharp crack, and always they maintained that look that had drawn my eyes to the poster. Most of the moves they showed involved grabbing one’s opponent’s mawashi (belt) in hopes of getting him to either place a foot outside the dohyo (ring) or touch the ground with any body part except the feet. They also showed the illegal moves: choking, punching, grabbing the head or groin, pulling hair, poking eyes and kicking above the knees. That the wrestlers avoid petty violence contributes to the stately grace of the sport. As I watched them, eyes wide and mouth hanging a little slack, I couldn’t wait for the Sumo Open the following day.

Sitting in the car on the way downtown, my excitement was overwhelming. When my mom, a friend and I arrived, we got red-and-white-striped wristbands (which I left on my wrist for months until it fell off on its own). Looking around the large conference room-turned-mini-sports arena, I took in the scene. Straight ahead was the dohyo, well-lit and circular, with two lines indicating where the wrestlers would start. Two hundred to 300 spectators filled the room.

Then the matches began. As the two wrestlers crashed, their bodies both absorbed the shock with a sort of thudding slap, and then they pushed forward relentlessly. The color rose to their faces as they struggled. The atmosphere was tight with anticipation, and every pair of eyes was drawn to the scuffle in the ring. People cheered for their favorite athletes, or like my mom and I, cheered simply because they were caught up in the spirit of the event. The matches went on with a fierce intensity, fast and one right after the other. The longest bouts last more than a minute and are rare. Matches usually last less than 30 seconds. There was no time to be uninterested, and definitely no reason; the hypnotic, almost rhythmic flow of the event was so engrossing.

To my disappointment, we had to leave in the middle of the women’s matches, which were equally intense. I left the room backwards, facing the inside, trying to get whatever last glimpses I could.

A few weeks later, I was at the gym. In my hands was The Big Book of Sumo, which I had been perusing on the treadmill at the gym or reading on the bus and in the car. Walking up to an exercise machine, I spotted someone wearing a U.S. Sumo Open T-shirt, and I approached him. I pointed to the shirt and smiled. "Did you go this year?" He seemed confused that I was asking him about sumo, and probably surprised that I recognized the shirt.

We talked for a while about this year’s Sumo Open and about some of the athletes, and then he told me something that would prove very important.

"You know there’s this gym where you can go. They hold sumo classes every Sunday, and it’s open to anyone who’s interested in going. You should really check it out."

I looked at him incredulously. "You mean I could go and I could learn sumo?"

"Yeah, absolutely. Go have a look. It’s a cool thing they’ve got going over there."


Two months later, I have arrived. As I step into the Jun Chong Martial Arts Center in West

L.A., the first thing I notice is the sticky-sweet smell of perspiration. And disgusting as that is, I am too excited for words. But there isn’t a sign of sumo anywhere. Libby (one of the L.A. Youth editors), Jennifer (a student photographer), and I ask the bored-looking fellow at the desk what to do, and he tells us to wait a few more minutes for the sumo practice.

Eventually, two men walk in the door. The skinnier man introduces himself as Andrew Freund. I recognize his name from brochures, and I remember his face—he hosted the demonstration at my school and the Open. The big guy is Dan Kalbfliesch, he’s a wrestler training for the

Grand Sumo Open (which took place Aug. 14). Andrew apologizes and says that he thinks it’s going to be a small turnout. I can tell Dan is uneasy at the presence of a girl accompanied by two other females, both with cameras. He leans over and mutters to Andrew, "There’s too much estrogen, man."

We start out warming up. We run in circles around the room, take sporadic leaps, touch our knees while we run, essentially playing follow-the-leader. I am quickly out of breath and sweating.

It’s time to put on the mawashi (belt). I can hardly contain myself. Andrew opens a duffle bag and pulls out a few rolls of canvas, which unroll into strips about 4.5 inches wide. First, Dan and Andrew put on theirs, and Andrew helps me put mine on over my shorts, saying that it will probably be much too big, but I don’t care.

I have to do what?

Next are somersaults. I panic. I have not done a somersault since those long-gone days of ballet and gymnastics classes when I was 4. But it’s not too scary, and I get up feeling accomplished.

"All right, now we do a sushi roll." A "sushi roll" is not a hard-earned tasty morsel but an awkward physical exercise, in which I am supposed to do a somersault with my arms covering my head and sort of use my arm to protect my head and neck while rolling over sort of to the side. It’s basically impossible. I try a few unsuccessfully, and eventually we give up. Andrew’s nice though, saying as I roll about on the mat like a confused marble, "That’s good, good for your first time."

Then, on to the shiko kicks, which constitute the most basic part of the sumo exercise routine (some wrestlers will do hundreds of them per day), along with sit-ups and deep stretching. To do a shiko kick properly, I must position my legs altogether too far apart for any comfort or modesty in the shorts department. (I spend much of the class worrying about this; the mawashi is a make-my-shorts-ride-up machine.) They tell me to stay balanced as I swing one leg high into the air, hold it, and replace my leg on the mat with a slap on the thigh to finish. It seems a lot easier and a lot less painful than it is. I’m falling all over myself, and though I try not to show it on my face, my leg muscles are starting to burn. We do a few too many of those, and a few more exercises, and finally we begin what I came for.

I’m standing with my legs apart, mawashi on, crouching and trying to suppress my excited grin so I look menacing. I notice the sweat beading all over Dan’s body and realize that it is that sweat and considerable bulk that I will be hurling myself at momentarily. They tell me to try to achieve a three-point hit to his chest—both of my hands and the crown of my head. When I use all of my energy to propel myself forward, I hit his chest with a surprising and slightly painful force. We’re barely two feet from each other, so rather than running at my opponent, I just sort of launch myself forward as hard as I can. I never thought this would happen, but suddenly, I want nothing more than to be about a foot taller and weigh about 150 more pounds. I push as hard as I can until Dan stops pushing back. I stop and look up, beaming, and Andrew and Dan are filled with comments. "Elbows in," "center of gravity low," "keep your feet on the ground." Suddenly, it’s not so simple.

We spend the next half hour or so in the same way. Andrew and Dan let me hit them, then they practice on each other. At one point Dan picks me up in the air and holds me over his head while I flail and laugh. As we practice, I fantasize about becoming the next big name in women’s sumo. I mean, it could happen … with a lot more practice. And a lot more sushi rolls. And shiko kicks. Hmm …

And then He shows up.

He is Troy Collins. He’s an LAPD cop, and he’s really cool. He’s also a very big dude—a commanding 6’4", about 250 pounds. He’s my hero. He was at the school demonstration and I saw him compete at the Open. Troy was one of the ones my mom and I had cheered for in our excitement. Eventually, he’s giving me all kinds of advice, too. Amazing. I’m pretty sure my life has reached its pinnacle.

We take a short break later on, and Troy takes out a newspaper clipping showing us a picture of him and an announcement of his newly-gained rank of 4th middleweight amateur wrestler in the world. As I talk to him, I can hardly keep it together. I can’t really wrap my mind around the fact that he is standing here in front of me, someone who had never really seemed real until now. I keep thinking about how much fun this is. Not only am I getting to learn how to do something I so admired, but I’m also getting to hang out with some genuinely cool people. It seems that despite that estrogen comment from Dan, they’ve warmed up to us.

We finish up the practice, and at the end, Andrew hands me several pamphlets and flyers about upcoming and past sumo events, including an advertisement for Grand Sumo Las Vegas, which was held in early October. Sumo wrestlers came all the way from Japan to have a tournament in the United States, which hasn’t happened in more than 20 years.

Ultimately, I begged enough to go to Vegas and see the event. I knew that this was going to be the best entire weekend I’ve ever spent for just a two-hour event. Walking into Mandalay Bay Convention Center, cheeks aching from the smile plastered on my face, it seemed like the perfect ending to my sumo experience.